Afrin — A New Twist
I would like to think Russia is quite pleased with itself these days. The United States and the European Union, its most powerful adversaries, are both grappling with deep internal problems. None of these are critical yet of course but they are also problems that weren’t there before.
Russia seems to have learned from the cold war and the mistakes of the Soviet Union. NATO and the EU won’t collapse due to external pressures and aggression, or at least directly. No, if it’s going to happen, it’ll have to be internal. That is why the German foreign minister mainly focused on criticizing how Russia is undermining internal EU unity, rather than its behaviour in other places like the Middle East, during the recent Munich security conference. America and its political elite too seem to be obsessed with Russia these days, a discourse which is steering the internal affairs of the country.
The latest episode in this saga is playing itself out in the Middle East. A few weeks ago, Turkey launched it’s second invasion of Syria in as many years. As with all things Syria lately, this too is a quagmire with multiple sides, composed of loose alliances and shifting allegiances. Turkey is waging this latest campaign to prevent Kurdish groups from cementing their military victories in northern Syria.
Russia is hard at work to outmanoeuvre the United States in the Middle East. Certain alliances won’t be broken, or at least reoriented. Hell will probably freeze over before Israel and Saudi Arabia ditch the Americans and join the Russian camp. The UAE owes its continued existence to the west and won’t do anything which effects that. Qatar appears to be the weakest link in this chain and is being courted by the Russians, Iranians and the Turks. This is mostly due to the blatant attempt at regime change by its Arab neighbours, who would also settle for Qatari sovereignty. But even the Israelis and Saudis are in Moscow a bit too frequently nowadays. Russia recently hosted the first ever visit by a Saudi monarch, a scenario which wasn’t on the cards just a few years ago.
There are three ways the Russians can do this: Russia could gain power of its own, it could reduce American influence, or a combination of the two. Right now, Russia appears to be working toward both ends, i.e. option three above.
It has become abundantly clear over the past three years that Russia will not allow it’s most loyal ally in the Middle East, Bashar Al-Assad, to fall from power. Should Assad go, Syria will cease to exist as we know it. That also means Russia will lose its only permanent naval facility in the Mediterranean at Tartous. Given NATO positions around Russia, it would be a great strategic blunder. So that probably won’t happen.
Why, then, would Russia allow Turkey, a sworn enemy of Assad — Russia’s ally — and the NATO power which dared to shoot down it’s very own aircraft (supposedly in Syrian airspace), to roam freely above the skies of Afrin in northern Syria? Airspace that it supposedly controls? In fact, Russia has been very accommodating of Turkish demands and withdrew its troops from Afrin to let the Turks have their way.
I would say one of the main reasons Russia let this happen is to teach the Kurds a lesson, or at least send a message: that an alliance with the Americans is not worth the paper it’s not written on. After all, NATO in general, and the U.S. in particular, refused to openly take Turkey’s side (which I’m sure Turkey hasn’t forgotten about) when the Russian jet was shot down and simply called for calm. America, which promised the Kurds protection from the skies in exchange for their land forces, has done nothing to stop this attack, other than issue diplomatic condemnation. Probably doesn’t help the Kurds sleep better at night.
Turkey, having tasted blood, is already angling for more. It wants Manbij, another Kurdish controlled town, to be next in it’s “cleansing” operation. Problem is, that’s also where the SDF — Syrian Democratic Forces — is based. And the SDF, a Kurdish led force, includes American soldiers who are “advisers” in the now concluding fight against ISIL. Turkey wants the U.S.to follow the example set by the Russians in Afrin and withdraw their troops from Manbij. The Americans basically laughed at that proposal and threatened to strike back.
Turkey considers the Kurds its kryptonite and probably won’t back down easily. So essentially, Turkish and American soldiers might face off, even if only as a show of force. That is, two NATO armies in battle posture against one another. America has already said it won’t back down and that their soldiers “will defend themselves”. Turkey on the other hand has promised the Ottoman slap, apparently a deadly one. Some NATO members are already irritated with Turkey, notably Germany, which has withdrawn its troops from the NATO Incirlik base due to a bilateral spat. This situation will make an already tense situation more so. I can almost feel the gleeful excitement in the Kremlin.
What sorts of conclusions the Kurds will arrive at regarding the US, I don’t know. But that is one more bilateral relationship of America that the Russians are influencing. The Kurds are calling on the Syrian government — but not Assad specifically — to come to their aid and protect the country against a foreign invasion.
Turkey may be calmed if the YPG — People’s Protection Units — another Kurdish force, is removed from Afrin and the Syrian army takes over security in the area (negotiations on the terms of such an agreement are already being discussed in Ankara and Moscow). It is not clear how much the Kurds are willing to give, but if Erdogan, Putin and Assad come to an understanding, they will have no choice but to yield.
But if that doesn’t come to pass, a military force, including US troops, will ally with Assad’s forces, the man the US has spent billions trying to oust from power, in a battle against a NATO military. Who would have thought this is where the Syrian war would end?
The Middle East, the cradle of civilisation, also seems to be the source of perpetual warfare. If it isn’t over the intellectual might of the region, then it is for the natural resources. But regardless, it is a region at the center of a lot of conflicts. This might be where NATO finally goes to war with itself. What happens when the largest army in NATO has a face off with the second largest army in NATO, in a war they are nominally on the same side of? What will happen if the Americans are dealt the Ottoman slap, as the Sultan has promised?